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The Morning Brew: 5 things to know about Oklahoma's surprisingly strong socialist history

Early in statehood, Oklahomans felt what would today might be called "The Bern."

5 things to know about Oklahoma's surprisingly strong socialist history

1. Socialist ideals spread like prairie wildfire at the turn of the 20th Century

If the first two decades of the 20th century stand as the golden era of American socialism, the Socialist Party of Oklahoma was “the most vigorous, ambitious, and fascinating socialist movement of all,” historian Jim Bissett wrote in his 1999 book, "Agrarian Socialism in America: Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside."

What did Oklahoma socialists want?

First, to survive. Next, land to own, not rent, that they could work and pass to their children. Oklahoma socialists pushed for collective local ownership of resources like gins and cotton mills, said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Farmers scraping a living from the red earth faced tenancy, inflated supply and low crop prices. The brutal trifecta locked farmers into abject poverty while landowners capitalized on the broken-down workers' struggles. They wanted a better life. 

2. Party organizers utilized messages from the Bible to grow a following

Faded passages on the front page of the Strong City Herald in Roger Mills County, one of socialism's strongholds in the state in 1916, paint a grim picture of life before reminding readers of the Christian duty to take action.

“Thousands of those that till the soil are homeless and moneyless, with children uneducated and overworked and underfed ... They are struggling for existence while a set of grafters live in luxury on dollars coined from the sweat and tears of these unhappy victims. Oh the tragedy of it!” reads The “Sunday Morning Thoughts” column by G.W. Hutton that ran on Aug. 31, 1916.

The column then referenced Bible passages:

“ ... Stop doing wrong

Learn to do right; seek justice.

Defend the oppressed ..."

3. Socialist candidates got elected in the Sooner state

Between 1907 and 1920, socialist candidates won election to a variety of Oklahoma offices. At its zenith in 1914, the Socialist Party candidate for governor culled 20 percent of the statewide vote. Oklahomans that year elected more than 175 socialists to local and county offices across the state, including six state lawmakers.

4. Scrappy publications all over the state crackled with socialist ideals

Socialist publications provided an answer to the political leanings of the day. The post-Civil War southern Democratic Party, which extended all the way to Oklahoma and Texas, was widely viewed as a party of white supremacy and elites.

5. World War I spelled doom for the party  

The U.S. entered World War I.

An atmosphere of "superpatriotism" would spell doom for anti-war socialists making headway across the country.

Reported The Oklahoman's Matt Patterson:

In August, 1917, tenant farmers and Native Americans in rural southeastern Oklahoma, many of them members of the socialist party, rose up to protest the draft. Law enforcement put down the so-called Green Corn Rebellion and the socialist party in Oklahoma was never the same.

“The party died because it didn't support the war enthusiastically,” Agnew said. “It was literally defunct by the time the war began and the Green Corn rebels were considered threats to democracy.”

By 1918, Congress passed acts that made it illegal for people to publicly oppose American involvement in the war.

You can't very well run a movement from a jail cell.

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Juliana Keeping

Juliana Keeping is on the enterprise reporting team for The Oklahoman and Keeping joined the staff of The Oklahoman in 2012. Prior to that time, she worked in the Chicago media at the SouthtownStar, winning a Peter Lisagor Award... Read more ›